D.C. diners have probably seen by now the dueling posters proliferating in restaurant windows with slogans like “Vote No on Initiative #77” and “Better Wages Better Tips.”
The signs are an effort by organizations to turn out voters on an initiative on the ballot Tuesday that would create a flat minimum wage for all District employees.
Those in favor of Initiative 77 say it will protect vulnerable populations from discrimination and harassment. Those against it say the law could end up lowering wages and put restaurants out of business.
Jamie Sanchez, vice president of Cactus Cantina, said that if he had to pay his workers three times more, something would have to give.
"Definitely we'll see the industry change as far as pricing, and all kinds of other things may happen," he said.
D.C. has been hiking its minimum wage since 2014, and it will continue to rise to $15 by 2020. The minimum wage in D.C. is currently $12.50, but tipped employees are exempt and paid just $3.33 hourly.
Under the current law, if tipped employees don't earn minimum wage with their tips, their employers are required to pay the difference.
A 2017 D.C. Department of Employment Services' Minimum Wage Economic Impact Study found that more than 27,000 employees in D.C. work for tips. More than half of those employees are not waiters or bartenders; they're hostesses, parking lot attendants and salon employees.
An audit by the department found 419 cases of employers violating the law requiring employers to pay up to minimum wage.
The initiative would require restaurants to annually raise the minimum wages of tipped employee wages by $1.50 until 2025, when the rate is set to match the $15 minimum wage for non-tipped employees.
More than half of the D.C. Council, plus Mayor Muriel Bowser, have expressed opposition to the initiative, which has been criticized by opponents as unnecessary and bad for business.
Those against the initiative say workers may make less in tips than they do now because restaurants would compensate paying higher wages by raising prices or adding service charges.
Other restaurants could reduce hours or shut down their bars completely, the group against Initiative 77, Save our Tips, said on its website.
Those in favor of the ballot measure argue that it can be tough for servers worried about losing their jobs to ask their bosses for more money.
"When you as a government tell the employer you can pay women and people of color less and have them make up the difference in tips, that's legislative pay inequity," said Diana Ramirez, executive director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of D.C.
Ramirez' group helps organize equal pay efforts for tipped workers around the country and formed One Fair Wage D.C. to advocate on behalf of the District initiative.
The group said employees, especially women and members of minority groups, endure sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior from customers as they work to make tips.
They also argue that the higher minimum wage won't stop people from tipping.
Save Our Tips raised over $300,000 to fight Initiative 77. It pulled in over $170,000 in donations from industry groups, according to financial disclosures.
The Restaurant Association Metropolitan and the National Restaurant Association cut checks worth about $150,000, the filings say. Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises paid about $20,000.
Another group advocating against the initiative, NO2DC77, raised over $40,000, mainly from restaurants and management groups.